The label began with an ambitious project: to honor and document the legacy of the West Coast bassist Eric von Essen, who died leaving a huge cache of lovely, unrecorded compositions. Three volumes of the von Essen project, 37 other discs and 10 years later, there's more than enough for a two-CD retrospective. But how to describe this aesthetic expanse? In part, by what it isn't: No bebop, no jazz standards (unless you count Carla Bley's "Walking Batterie Woman" or faint echoes of the "Girl on the Flying Trapeeze" in Jenny Scheinman's "Song of the Open Road"), no "free jazz" that doesn't work back to some semblance of form (although the DVD includes some exceptions to those guidelines). More pieces nod to rocking than to swinging, though the swinging, like the rocking, tends to be eccentric. Some pieces, like the aforementioned Scheinman piece, have a sort of eccentric neo-hoedown feel.
The closest thing to a star to come out of the very loose circle of West Coast players heard at the label is Nels Cline — of Wilco in recent years. And he's here in guitar-master glory with his Nels Cline Singers and in the groups of Scott Amendola, Alan Pasqua and label-head Jeff Gauthier. Other leaders include former Detroiters Bennie Maupin and Don Preston, Myra Melford and Erik Friedlander.
Good as the disc is, though, it's in some ways outclassed by the accompanying DVD, which includes a meditative abstract video-plus-performance piece by percussionist-leader Alex Cline (joined by twin brother Nels and others) and a go-for-broke live performance by a Maupin-led group. The highpoint is an hour-long complement to No Monastery, the Nels Cline Sextet's much-lauded Andrew Hill tribute. There's good, informative behind-the-music commentary along with live performances that, to paraphrase Sly Stone, takes the music higher. It's music with space and drama: You're reluctant to leave the room because you need to hear where the music will go, how things will turn out.
W. Kim Heron is the editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.